Fun Cubs squad captivated in 2003
Big performances, big heartbreak marked memorable year
CHICAGO -- At least once a year for the past five years, former Cubs first baseman Eric Karros has sat down and watched a video he taped of the Cubs' 2003 season. Karros captured the behind-the-scenes activities on camera, and so far, it's been for his eyes only.
"I think I'm the only one who's watched it," Karros said of his 6 1/2-hour of tape. "There's some great stuff on it. There's stuff we shared as a group. There's guys who are still playing on there, and there's some crazy stuff on it."
Because those guys are still playing and because of the craziness, the film, now transferred to DVD, will stay in Karros' safety deposit box. Whenever he watches it, he's reminded of how special the '03 Cubs were.
"We had a good group of guys," said Karros, now a broadcaster for FOX Sports. "I've talked to some guys on this team now, and the chemistry now is better than it was in '03. This [Cubs] team wins a lot more, too."
The 2003 team subjected fans to one of the wildest roller-coaster rides in the past 100 years of the Cubs baseball, and ended in serious heartbreak.
The 2002 season had been a disaster. Don Baylor started the year as manager, but was dismissed in July when the Cubs were 34-49. Triple-A Iowa manager Bruce Kimm took over at that time, but he seemed overmatched, and the Cubs finished 67-95, 30 games back. On Nov. 15, 2002, Dusty Baker was hired as the franchise's 22nd manager, fresh off a World Series appearance as manager of the Giants.
Heading into '03, Baker took a big step in trying to erase the Cubs' "lovable losers" image. In his introductory news conference, he asked, "Why not us?" Why couldn't the Cubs win?
There were some highs during the '03 campaign:
Sammy Sosa joined the 500 home run club on April 4, connecting in the seventh inning off Cincinnati's Scott Sullivan at Great American Ball Park. Sosa also notched his 2,000th career hit June 8 with a single off the Yankees' Juan Acevedo. He finished the season with 40 homers and 103 RBIs.
On Aug. 11, Kerry Wood recorded his 1,000th career strikeout in a 3-1 loss to Houston at Wrigley Field. Wood had 11 double-digit strikeout games in 2003 and finished with 266 K's.
Mark Prior lived up to the hype, going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA. That included a 16-strikeout game against Milwaukee on June 26. The young right-hander won 10 of his last 11 starts, including two complete games, and fanned 85 in that stretch.
There were a few lows, too:
On Easter Sunday, Sosa was hit in the head by a pitch from Pittsburgh's Salomon Torres, which shattered his helmet. It was only the beginning.
On June 3, Sosa shattered his bat in the first inning on a grounder to second base against Tampa Bay and was ejected when umpires found cork in the bat. Tests were conducted on the 76 bats in Sosa's locker as well as his bats in the Hall of Fame, and everything else was clean. He served a seven-game suspension.
"If I would've known, I wouldn't have picked the bat," said Sosa, who claimed he used it for home run exhibitions. "I was so focused on the game, I picked the wrong bat. I'm man enough to take everything that I've done. I take the blame."
An Interleague game on June 7 between the Cubs and Yankees at Wrigley was marred by a violent collision between Wood and rookie first baseman Hee Seop Choi. Choi, who was hitting .244 at the time, had to be taken off the field in an ambulance. He did return June 30, and finished the year with eight homers and 28 RBIs.
Reliever Kyle Farnsworth made the best tackle of the season June 19 in Cincinnati when he knocked Reds pitcher Paul Wilson to the ground. Wilson had squared to bunt and Farnsworth's pitch came inside. Wilson made the mistake of charging the mound. Several high school football coaches asked the Cubs for a tape of the incident because Farnsworth made a perfect tackle.
On July 6, center fielder Corey Patterson, who was hitting .298, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
With Wood, Prior and young Carlos Zambrano in the rotation, the Cubs were well-armed. Wood went 14-11 with a 3.20 ERA in 32 games. Zambrano, a full-time starter for the first time in his career, was 13-11 with a 3.11 ERA in 32 games. Matt Clement also won 14 games. Joe Borowski was the surprise closer, taking over at the start of the year for injured Antonio Alfonseca, and finished with 33 saves.
"We had a real good clubhouse," Karros said. "That team, it was a group effort."
The group became even better July 22 when the Cubs traded Jose Hernandez, Matt Brubeck and a player to be named later to Pittsburgh for Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton. Lofton provided a bona fide leadoff hitter, replacing Patterson, and Ramirez was the RBI man the Cubs needed.
On July 26, the Cubs were 51-52 and in third place, 5 1/2 games behind the Astros. From July 27-Sept. 27, Chicago posted a 37-21 record. That included a come-from-behind win Sept. 3, when the Cubs erased a 6-0 deficit to beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 8-7. They entered the final weekend of play tied with Houston for first place, and on Sept. 27, swept the Pirates, 4-2 and 7-2, in a doubleheader to clinch the National League Central. A 19-8 record in September propelled the Cubs to the title.
"The whole team came through together," Sosa said after the decisive game. "We never gave up. We've been through so many things this year. We just stayed together and supported each other and Dusty did an unbelievable job. For us to win the division here in Chicago is a like a dream come true."
The Cubs' resiliency was tested in the postseason as well. They opened the Division Series against postseason veterans in the Atlanta Braves. Wood struck out 11 in Game 1 and gave up one run on two hits over seven innings for the win. That win ended an eight-game postseason losing streak on the road, dating back to the 1945 World Series.
The Braves evened the series with a 5-3 win in Game 2, but Chicago won Game 3, 3-1, at Wrigley, as Prior threw a complete game two-hitter to beat former Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux.
Atlanta answered with a 6-4 win in Game 4 to again even the series. On Oct. 5 in Atlanta, Wood gave up one run and five hits over eight innings as the Cubs posted a 5-1 win to clinch the series. It was the Cubs' first postseason series win since the 1908 World Series.
The Wild Card Florida Marlins were next in the NL Championship Series. In Game 1, the Cubs led, 4-0, in the first inning, but the Marlins scored five times in the third off Zambrano. Mike Lowell's pinch-hit home run in the 11th was the game-winner as Florida won, 9-8. The Cubs romped, 12-3, in Game 2 to even the series, as Alex Gonzalez hit two homers and Sosa and Ramirez had one each.
The series shifted to Miami, and the Cubs won, 5-4, in 11 innings. Lofton hit a one-out single and scored on a pinch-hit triple by Doug Glanville in the 11th. Randall Simon, another late-season pickup from the Pirates who was part of the Cubs' jovial bench nicknamed "the Lemons," hit a two-run homer in the eighth.
Chicago took a 3-1 lead in the series with an 8-3 win Oct. 11 in front of 65,829 at Pro Player Stadium. Ramirez had two homers and six RBIs, and his first blast was a grand slam off Dontrelle Willis. Back at Wrigley for Game 5, Josh Beckett kept Florida's hopes alive by throwing a two-hit shutout to win, 4-0.
Then the nightmarish Game 6. On Oct. 14 at Wrigley, the Cubs led, 3-0, after seven innings and were five outs away from getting to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Prior had a three-hit shutout at that point. Since Aug. 4, Prior had gone 12-1 with a 1.44 ERA, which included his postseason numbers.
But the Marlins scored eight runs in the eighth to win, 8-3, in front of 39,577 fans. With one out, Juan Pierre doubled, and Luis Castillo hit the infamous souvenir foul ball, then drew a walk. Pudge Rodriguez hit an RBI single, and Miguel Cabrera reached on a critical error by Gonzalez. By the time the inning ended, the Marlins had sent 12 batters to the plate. Prior was charged with five of the eight runs.
Florida won Game 7, 9-6. Wood did help his cause by hitting a first-inning home run, but it wasn't enough. The Marlins went on to win the World Series.
"The thing I like is that our guys got a taste of what it's like in the postseason," Baker said at the end of the playoffs. "We're young. We're going to make some improvements for next year. In my mind, this is just the beginning of good things to come for us for many years."
Unfortunately for the Cubs, they did not get back to the postseason again until 2007. That was Lou Piniella's first season as manager and he led the team to its second Central title. But the '07 postseason ended quickly, as the Arizona Diamondbacks swept the Cubs in three games in the NLDS.
The Cubs have not finished in first in consecutive seasons since 1906-08. And, if you've been paying attention, that '08 season 100 years ago was the last time they won a World Series.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.